In prior Texas legislative sessions, state representative Jim Murphy relied heavily on his flash cards—each naming a legislator, detailing who they were, and including a photo—to form relationships with other lawmakers. But on January 12, the first day of the 2021 session, the Republican from Houston realized the tool would not be as valuable this year. On the floor, he couldn’t, for the life of him, put a name to the familiar legislator with striking brown eyes who had just said hello from behind her face mask—which he didn’t dare ask her to take off. As she kept speaking to him, Murphy slowly realized she was fourth-term Democrat Ina Minjarez from San Antonio, with a new, shorter hairstyle. “It’s very embarrassing because you are absolutely focusing on knowing who the members are,” Murphy told me later. “If you’ve already been used to someone because of their square jaw and their happy smile, that’s all gone.”
Playing a game of Guess Who? COVID Mask Edition with 181 state legislators is just the beginning of the challenges that lawmakers face this year as they figure out how to successfully govern during a pandemic. The Lege meets for just 140 days and the only thing it is constitutionally required to do is pass the two-year state budget. State lawmakers won’t meet again in regular session until January 2023, although they’ll likely return over the summer for a special session focused on redistricting before going on hiatus. Bills that are important but not urgent—say, curbing regulations on beekeepers—might become COVID casualties, said Senator Drew Springer, a Republican from Muenster, north of Fort Worth. “The legwork hasn’t really been done to know what needs to be done differently,” he told me. Minjarez, from behind her mask, agreed that many important bills will be the casualty of the calendar. “I’m very careful not to get emotionally invested because they might not see the light of day,” said Minjarez.
By this time in a typical session, the Capitol would normally feel like the crossroads of Texas. Two years ago, about 35,000 visitors entered the pink granite building in the first week of the session. By early February of 2019, two hundred bikers showed up to legislators’ offices to lobby against attempts to require they wear helmets. Snake handlers from Sweetwater Jaycees attracted a crowd by wrangling rattlesnakes in the outdoor rotunda near legislative offices. Hundreds more people descended on the Capitol with signs and megaphones, advocating for positions on innumerable issues. Matthew McConaughey even showed in March, along with the Longview Lobos football team, to celebrate their 2019 state championship.
But now the Capitol is virtually empty. The State Preservation Board isn’t even tallying visitors because the Capitol stopped offering guided tours and welcoming school groups. Demonstrators have avoided gathering there too, for the most part. “That normal human energy of advocacy at the state Capitol isn’t happening. It’s like crickets around here,” said Representative Celia Israel, an Austin Democrat. “In the course of being safe, my fear is that we’re losing that advocacy voice that provides that energy and that spark that moves the ball forward.”
Lawmakers have also been absent for many days: After Representative Joe Deshotel, a Beaumont Democrat, tested positive for the virus three days into the session, several legislators with neighboring desks entered self-quarantine. Both the House and Senate have opted to keep members away from the Capitol for two of the first four weeks of the session. That’s tough on lawmakers, who tend to be social animals and to conduct their politicking in person. Zoom and texting aren’t the best ways to persuade peers to help you pass a bill or take on a common enemy. With the typical meetings—drinks at the Cloak Room, receptions, and chamber of commerce events—largely off the table, many say it will be more difficult for legislation to succeed and become law this year.
The first few weeks of each legislative session are often slow. Lawmakers can’t even start hearing bills until committee assignments are made, typically in late January or early February (senators already have their committee assignments, but House members are still waiting). And until sixty days into the session, legislators are limited to passing ceremonial bills only, such as recognizing a winning sports team (Go Lobos!), unless the governor declares specific emergency items. (Governor Greg Abbott is expected to do just that later today during his State of the State address). The ceremonial resolutions carry no weight of law, but they at least allow legislators to mingle with one another.
“It’s high school on steroids,” said Houston representative Armando Walle, a seven-term Democrat, of the typical first few weeks. Freshmen lawmakers are surrounded by powerful veterans and they have to quickly figure out how to fit in, he said. “You’re kinda awkward. In-between the bell you’re in the hallway and you’re kind of looking down, you don’t know who’s friend or foe.”
To the average Texan, that time for small talk may not seem that important. But veterans of the Lege argue that it’s what greases the wheels for getting bills passed. “A lot of issues are not partisan issues but need good Texas solutions,” said Larry Phillips, who served eight terms in the Texas House representing a rural Republican district and now is a district court judge in North Texas. He says forming relationships on the floor makes getting bipartisan support easier. After his mother died, Representative Israel offered her condolences and drafted a resolution in her honor, acknowledging the work Phillips’s mother did for children as a teacher in Austin. Israel and Phillips both said that connection helped them work together better during their time on the House Transportation Committee.
“We’re so used to seeing the hyper-partisanship in D.C. because that’s what we see and that’s what we think,” Phillips said. “Because of the sheer nature of the amount of the work that’s done in 140 days, it causes you to have those relationships to get stuff done.”
Representatives and senators across both parties are confident they can find a way to prevail. Instead of a slate of face-to-face meetings with constituents around the Capitol, their schedules are loaded with Zoom calls. Instead of small talk on the floor, they’re making a point to drop by the offices of new members to say hello.
Last month, Democratic representative Eddie Morales, a freshman who owns Piedras Negras Tortilla Factory, a company in Eagle Pass, sent every House and Senate member a bag of chips to help introduce himself. He hoped the gesture would help him show off his district and meet people. It worked. “Tortilla chips help us across the aisle!” Morales texted me, sharing tweets praising his chips from his new Republican friends. One of them was Springer, a proud member of the informal Salsa Caucus, a group of seven lawmakers who bond over their homemade sauces. Last Tuesday, two weeks after receiving his gift bag from Morales, Springer brought jars of his homemade smoked red salsa to the freshmen’s office and, together, they broke chips.